Keeping babies in parents' bed? It's debatable

October 23, 2005|By KATE SHATZKIN | KATE SHATZKIN,SUN REPORTER

Yes, Megan Humphrey of Annapolis has heard that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents sleep separately from their babies.

No, she isn't planning to stop sharing a bed with her 2-month-old daughter and toddler son.

"I couldn't imagine putting a baby in a crib," the 28-year-old mother said. "They expect to be carried and held and to sleep right next to you. This is the only developed country in the world where we don't sleep right next to our children."

In a policy statement designed to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, a task force of the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote this month that a number of case studies "suggest that bed sharing is hazardous."

SIDS deaths have dropped by 50 percent since the academy recommended in 1992 that babies be put to sleep on their backs instead of their stomachs. But the task force said it wants to reduce SIDS even further. Though it has discouraged bed-sharing in the past, this was the group's strongest statement yet against the practice.

The academy now recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents to reduce the risk of SIDS -- something advocates of breastfeeding laud. But the policy, which says putting the baby in his own bed is the best way to reduce SIDS, diverges from the practice of many parents.

As breastfeeding has become more common, more mothers have made room in their beds for little ones, saying it is an easier way to meet their nursing demands through the night. The family bed also is part of a popular philosophy called "natural" or "attachment" parenting, in which mothers keep their babies close by wearing them in slings or carriers, breastfeeding and sleeping with them to help infants feel more secure.

The proportion of infants usually sharing an adult bed at night grew from 5.5 percent to 12.8 percent between 1993 and 2000, according to the National Infant Sleep Position Study. Nearly half the infants in the study had spent at least some time in the previous two weeks sleeping on an adult bed at night.

'Go with the heart'

A number of parents who sleep with their babies said their own instincts should trump the doctors'. Several said they also would disregard a recommendation that babies use pacifiers at night to reduce the risk of SIDS, saying they would rather nurse the babies through the night instead.

Colleen Newman, a Westminster mother of two who sleeps with her 8-month-old daughter Claire and runs a parent coaching business, said she is telling mothers in her classes to "go with their heart" in deciding how their babies should sleep.

"If we tried to do everything we are told, we'd be running around in circles," the 28-year-old mother said.

Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician who sparked the attachment parenting movement with a series of books, said he thought the academy should have issued guidelines on how adults and infants can safely share a bed.

He advises parents to avoid soft sleeping surfaces and soft bedding for babies such as pillows or comforters; not to use alcohol, drugs or any over-the-counter medications that might cloud their awareness of the child; and to fit mattresses securely against headboards to keep infants from falling into a gap.

Sears and James McKenna, a biological anthropologist who directs the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, said parents will continue sleeping with infants. "It makes them go underground," said McKenna.

Inherently unsafe

But John Kattwinkel, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine who led the academy task force that issued the policy, said the group felt there was enough evidence for a categorical statement that infants should sleep separately.

"It's hard for me as a physician to make recommendations to people about how to make something unsafe a little less unsafe," he said. "There are absolutely no studies showing how to share beds safely."

The academy warns in particular against adults sleeping with an infant on a couch.

Dee Dee Franke, a registered nurse who runs a mothers' discussion group at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said many parents don't plan to sleep with their children -- it just happens.

"I think a lot of parents are very sleep deprived and pretty desperate, so a lot of kids are sleeping on their chests," she said.

When Jeanette Guy of Hunt Valley has her third baby next spring, the 38-year-old mother intends to do what she did with the first two -- bring the child into bed for nursing, then back in a nearby bassinet. But Guy said that sometimes, it's hard for mother and baby to keep from falling asleep together in the bed during breastfeeding -- even if it's only for an hour or so.

Bethany Beecher-Thomas of Roland Park, 28, said she never intended to sleep with her baby, "but my son would not sleep any other way."

The academy's statement notes that while so-called "co-sleepers" -- infant beds that attach to parent beds -- can be handy for nighttime breastfeeding, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has yet to establish standards for them.

But while parents should know that such standards haven't been set, Kattwinkel said the attached infant beds "make a lot of sense" to achieve closeness while giving baby his own space.

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kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

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